Friday, February 19, 2021

What did English detectives eat for breakfast?

Continuing with my exploration of the English Breakfast, I checked my bookshelves for cookbooks that tell what English detectives ate and how it was prepared. The most famous fictional English detectives often visited traditional country houses where their rich clients lived. These clients sometimes became murder victims and sometimes turned out to be the murderers -- but they still ate breakfast! Each of the cookbooks I found has rather extensive discussions of such breakfasts, including recipes. And these breakfasts were frequently just the type of English Breakfast that's described in Kaori O'Connor's book The English Breakfast (which I discussed here yesterday). While I've written posts about these three books before, I want to concentrate on their treatment of the detectives' breakfasts.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's childhood home Torquay, and her favorite country residence Greenway House both served breakfast in the traditional country house manner, always in the special-purpose breakfast room.  Christie loved these homes, and others where she lived as well, according to Crèmes & châtiments: Recettes délicieuses et criminelles (Creams and Punishments: Recipes both delicious and Criminal from Agatha Christie) by Anne Martinetti and François Rivère. My diligent searches have not turned up an Agatha Christie cookbook in English: I fear this is the only one that's been published.

The only Agatha Christie cookbook I can find. Published 2005.

From her first detective novel onward (published 1920), Agatha Christie often featured English country house breakfasts, as well as breakfasts eaten in other venues by her detectives and her other characters. The recipes and descriptions in Crèmes & châtiments begin with a detailed explanation of tea: its history, its many types and origins, and how English people enjoy it. Coffee lovers are also accommodated at a classic country house breakfast. As for Hercule Poirot, his beloved hot chocolate at breakfast is distinctly non-English. He requires it to be served on a very symmetrically arranged tray with a croissant or roll for dipping. 

In her chapter on breakfast, Martinetti also includes recipes for tomatoes with white beans, grilled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms in which you might just include one or two poisonous ones if you are an aspiring murderer; several types of eggs including omelet curry and eggs Benedict; kidneys with bacon, many fish dishes suitable for breakfast, and a couple of home-made marmalades. For every recipe there's an appropriate quotation from one of Agatha Christie's numerous stories, and many beautiful pictures.

In short: this book offers a very good selection for the classic English Breakfast!

Arthur Conan Doyle

"A good roast beef, plum pudding, or English trifle" are quintessential dishes named at the beginning of Dining with Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Cookbook by Julia Carlson Rosenblatt and Frederic H. Sonnenschmidt (published 1976 and 1990). Breakfast, however, is "by far the most prominent meal in the Sherlockian Canon." One expert they cite "Has counted 73 specific mentions of breakfast, as opposed to 30 references to lunch, 3 to high tea, and 58 to dinner or supper." (p. 19) 

Not the only Sherlock Holmes Cookbook.

While Rosenblatt and Sonnenschmidt's details about the foods provided by Holmes and Watson's landlady Mrs. Hudson are speculative, they reflect the fact that Mrs. Hudson was working in the 19th century tradition of an English Breakfast. (The first Sherlock Holmes publication was in 1887.) Mrs. Hudson's repertory specifically included eggs, bacon, ham, a cold joint of beef, and other classics. Although Arthur Conan Doyle rarely listed the full menu, the cookbook authors speculatively provided complete menus that might have been eaten before or during the hectic investigations in the stories.

Dorothy Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey was a member of the aristocracy, the English class that lived in country houses and thrived on breakfasts of eggs, fish, game, organ meats, and many other savory dishes, served at a buffet in a special breakfast room. Indeed, from Dorothy Sayers' first detective story (published 1923) Lord Peter often enjoys such a meal, and many are documented in quite a whimsical way in The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J. Eakins. 

"Ah, I have never regretted  Paradise Lost since I discovered that it contained no eggs and bacon," observed Lord Peter (quoted on p. 14). The authors add quite a number of the detective's other observations about classic English Breakfast foods as well. For example, he wished he could tell off his charlady for her "tiresome habit of boiling his breakfast kippers till they resembled heavily pickled loofahs." (p. 15)

The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook, published 1981.

The chapter on breakfast provides a number of helpful menus with suggestions for re-enactments of the scenes in Lord Peter's breakfast room, such as assigning your guests to pose as characters from the novels. Here is one of the menus, which the authors recommend that you serve in "bilibeastly" weather:


There follows a very helpful explanation of bloaters:
"Bloaters are herrings which have been lightly salted and smoked. They do not keep for long periods of time so they should be eaten right away like fresh fish... They are the famous 'red herrings' of literature. 
"Allow one bloater per person. Not everyone at the breakfast table will want one. Trim each bloater of head and tail. Make incisions in the skin at approximately one-inch intervals across each side of the fish. Place the fish in a lightly buttered, shallow ovenproof dish. Dot each fish with butter and bake for about 30 minutes in a preheated 350º oven. ... 
"An even more distinguished bloater dish is suggested by Mrs. Sayers's husband, Atherton Fleming, in his cookbook. Major Fleming recommends putting two bloaters in a soup plate, poring on whiskey to cover, setting the dish afire, and letting it flame until done." (p. 9-10)
The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook is highly entertaining, even if you are not a Dorothy Sayers fan. It's a lot more fun to read than the Victorian breakfast cookbooks and household manuals reproduced in Kaori O'Connor's The English Breakfast. I will return to this topic!

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

English detectives at breakfast? Now that's a subspecialty you have thoroughly investigated.

Side note: I'm taken aback when I read about the English drinking coffee. Somehow I had picked up the idea that they always drank tea in lieu of coffee.

Jeanie said...

I have NEVER heard of a bloater! learn something new every day.

I think I have found the book you must write (or compile). The British Detective Breakfast Cookbook. A little Italian for Brunetti and Paola; Provencal for Bruno; definitely something French with white wine for Maigret... and of course the Brits. You are the only person I know who has the food knowledge and the mystery knowledge to do this!

Story Time said...

Two topics for further investigation:
1. Toast Racks
2. How people eat such breakfasts without being the size of Nero Wolfe.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Dave grew up in a house with a breakfast room, and was served a hot meal every morning. I'm sure a hangover from his mother who grew up in a traditional English home.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

The title of you post certainly drew me in- what an interesting post, hreat job!

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Such an interesting post. I enjoyed reading it.
Since we've been shut-in , I've been watching a lot of English detectives shows on Amazon and Netflix.

Beth F said...

I love Lord Peter!

Claudia said...

Very interesting, though I've noted their breakfasts, in the course of reading English detective novels over the years. Way too much food for me first thing in the morning. Though, Lord Peter is one of my all time favorites.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

You certainly know how to write a post on English breakfast, especially one a British detective might enjoy. This was a fascinating read.

Laurie C said...

Fascinating! Is a "fry-up" only for tea or supper, I suppose? If we cook a big breakfast with tomatoes, baked beans, and sausage, we say we're having a fry-up, but I think that's wrong.
The problem I have with the English Breakfast is all the fat! Too greasy. Also, I don't like cold toast, which -- judging from Downton Abbey and books where breakfast is laid out on the sideboard -- is how it's eaten in England?

Divers and Sundry said...

Fun! I like the detectives, so these books would suit me :)

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

Looks like you are having fun playing detective with the breakfasts they would eat.